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In the United States, visual novels are not exactly a common genre; the closest a popular series came to the genre for a long time was Capcom's acclaimed Ace Attorney (Phoenix Wright). Nowadays, the closest to the visual novel genre is actually 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors by Chunsoft; it is much more in line with the visual novel genre than the Ace Attorney series, but Ace Attorney is more well known.
But what are visual novels?
Visual novels are most often found in
Japan, and feature the player going through a story with set events.
Gameplay is usually limited to mousing over a choice (as the vast
majority of visual novels are for the PC / Mac environments, with PCs
taking the lead) and/or clicking so the text can advance. These types
of games use visuals to have the player immersed in the story, even
though these visuals are usually fairly simple by today's standards;
usually they are of the sprite or character illustration-on-static
background variety, with the illustrations having a set number of
expressions to help convey character emotion. Visual novels may or
may not have different endings available depending on the choices the
player makes; games like Higurashi When They Cry do not really
have different endings, while more complex games like Animamundi:
Dark Alchemist or the much more
lighthearted Yo-Jin-Bo: The Bodyguards feature at least
ten different endings depending on different player choices.
In Japan, there exist many
distinctions and types of visual novels, with one of them being the
graphical adventure novel (which would be the category that Ace
Attorney falls into); but in the States and abroad, the various
distinctions and types of visual novels do not really exist, because
so relatively few examples have been commercially translated and
available, they are all considered to be 'visual novels'.
Unfortunately, because the majority of visual novels that are
translated into English have 18+ scenes or sequences, there is an
association of visual novels with one of their types called eroge
(erotic games), even when this is not true. Not all visual novels are
those of the erotic variety – and even those that do have erotic
sequences may belong also to another genre (the heart-wrenching game
Kana: Little Sister comes
to mind, as well as the more horror/suspense game Lunar
Legend Tsukihime). There are
non-erotic visual novels out there in English – the aforementioned
Higurashi When They Cry is
one of them. There are mature scenes in it, as it is a horror game,
but the mature scenes in it are more for graphic violence than
anything else. The famous games by Key such as Kanon, Air,
and Clannad also have
non-erotic versions available and these are more all-ages,
concentrating on themes like the pursuit of love and family.
The Ace Attorney series is not quite like these, any Ace Attorney fan can tell you that the story of a particular case is usually pretty linear, similar to some visual novels (like Higurashi When They Cry). You follow along with the text, select the appropriate choices to keep conversations going, or use the Magatama / Perceive System to try and find clues from witnesses. The player can indeed make choices, but is penalized for presenting evidence at the wrong time, or presenting incorrect evidence, and therefore great care must be taken to present all the correct information at the correct times – which could possibly lead to no small amount of frustration during gameplay. The backgrounds and art for the Ace Attorney series are also generally of the sprite-on-static-background flavor, with some specialized scenes thrown in the mix, another reminder of the visual novel genre.
So if you like the Ace Attorney series, check out 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors (also for the DS) or go through places like jlist.com to find all-ages (and erotic, if you are so inclined) visual novels available in English for download or for pre-order – these visual novels are often for the PC but some are available for the Mac platform as well.